Think Metro meets The Darwin Elevator. Add in airships, and creatures reminiscent of The Legend of the Duskwalker series. And you end up with Hell Divers.
Book 1 of Hell Divers
by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
4.5 / 5.0 stars
‘ We dive so humanity survives.’
It’s almost as if Nicholas Sansbury Smith wants the world to end. Or expects it. He’s certainly prepared for aliens, nuclear fallout, or weaponized pathogens—at least in theory. This is my second NSS novel, and third story overall. I previously finished ORBS, and its prequel SOLAR STORMS, in 2014. For years, I meant to read the second but perpetually failed to get around to it. NSS has been on my must-read list ever since, both for ORBS II and the BIOMASS REVOLUTION. I only heard of HELL DIVERS this summer and was able to snag the kindle edition on sale.
Anyway, HELL DIVERS takes places in a broken world, a post-apocalyptic nightmare where the bombs had crippled civilization and the nuclear fallout had ruined it. The only remnant of humanity lives aboard airships floating in the lower end of the troposphere (that’s the portion of the atmosphere closest to the earth), navigating between the fierce electrical storms which plague the planet. Humanity has held on this way, despite the airships being intended to only remain aloft for at most months at a time—these ships haven’t landed in centuries. And they’ve been able to do so through the contributions of hell divers—men and women who dive to the planet’s surface to search for salvage used to keep the ships alight.
But slowly these ships have failed, and fallen to earth. As of the events of HELL DIVERS, but a pair remain, and their days may be numbered.
Here’s the blurb:
‘ More than two centuries after World War III poisoned the planet, the final bastion of humanity lives on massive airships circling the globe in search for a habitable area to call home. Aging and outdated, most of the ships plummeted back to earth long ago. The only thing keeping the two surviving lifeboats in the sky are Hell Divers: men and women who risk their lives by diving to the surface to scavenge for parts the ships desperately need.
When one of the remaining airships is damaged in an electrical storm, a Hell Diver team is deployed to a hostile zone called Hades. But there’s something down there that’s far worse than the mutated creatures discovered on dives in the past—something that threatens the fragile future of humanity. ‘
While the meat of the second paragraph—the strange, mutated creatures—helped capture my interest, it was the Hell Divers that commanded my interest and could’ve carried the plot on their own, despite the intervention of mutants below and crisis and revolution in the world above. The strange new world that the Hell Divers explore is reminiscent of that of the METRO series (if you’ve read any Glukhovsky, or played any of the games), while the divers themselves relate heavily to the rangers found within the same.
Also, like the rangers in METRO—or really like rangers or explorers in any series—the Hell Divers of, um, HELL DIVERS lead short, often violent lives measured by the number of jumps completed. The average Hell Diver completes a mere 15 before an often violent death on the surface; be it succumbing to radiation poisoning or being ripped apart by abominations or simply suffering a failure from equipment which is overtaxed and outdated. Many never even make it to the surface alive, being swept away by wind and sundered on buildings or being struck by lightning before crashing to earth alone.
Characters and Setting
The story sees Xavier Rodriguez begin his 96th dive, making him a living legend among the remnant of humanity remaining. Xavier (called X) is a somewhat popular choice of character. A legend. X, alike the others, has his flaws; a drinking problem, a disconnect from the humans he protects, a mental and emotional anguish (also PTSD) stemming from the lives he’s seen extinguished—including those of his wife and lifelong friends.
Maria Ash captains the ship— and is a legend in her own right. Cancer survivor, and dedicated savior of the human race. Over the course of the story she deals with disease, dissent, betrayal, all while walking a knife’s edge—failure on both sides threatening to cost not only her own life but those of all others.
Tin is another popular character choice. Young and bright, small and quiet, son of a Hell Diver. It is and isn’t a coming of age story, as Tin is forced to deal with multiple tragedies and loss, all while finding his way in the world and maybe, maybe saving humanity as he does it.
Travis represents the unwashed masses: the lower-deckers aboard the airships who deal with rampant radiation and cancers from the nuclear drives keeping said ships aloft, with the lack of natural light and cramped living quarters, with less food and decency as those living above them. Travis might find what he wants through revolt, or he may cost the lives of those he’s trying to protect.
Weaver is a Hell Diver aboard the Ares, the Hive’s sister ship, and the only other remaining ship aloft. But his story isn’t found aboard this other ship, but instead on the ground, where he fights to save everything as his life falls to pieces around him. I found him the most intriguing character as I kept expecting him to die, but he kept refusing to. I’m not saying whether he does eventually, or not, just that he lived an awful lot longer than I expected. He’s a stubborn bastard, he is. And honestly, while I really enjoyed X’s story, Weaver is probably my favorite character. I think he adds an element to the story that—while we could probably have lived without it—transformed the story with a subplot both vibrant and noticeable. Something that shone in this depressing wasteland of a tale.
HELL DIVERS is a story that I probably would’ve read just for the exploration of another world ravaged by war. To wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland devoid of anything remotely human. Throw in airships (AIRSHIPS!) and include mutant nightmares, along with betrayal and revolution, and—hey, I’m all in.
The plot does suffer towards the end under the weight of NSS’s ambitions—the pace slows despite trying everything not to, sacrificing the vivid world- and character-building it created at the outset in favor of a faster and more thrilling conclusion. While I had raced through the story to this point, the lack of a detailed word-picture caused my pace to falter somewhat, as NSS seems willing to sacrifice it in order to reach his forgone conclusion. Yes, I’m saying that it feels like he’d written the conclusion separately instead of building up to it—and there’s nothing wrong with this, so long as it works. And it does, it does, but… It feels forced. Just a bit. Not a deal-breaker. Not even a problem, really. It just feels a bit… off. Towards the end.
Rating and Recommendations
Digesting this book was surprising. While I initially rated it at 4 / 5 upon finishing HELL DIVERS a few weeks past, now upon writing this review I can’t recall why. This is a solid read. It got better after I digested it. Usually I find more faults with a book given time. Not always big, usually not deal-breaking, but minor holes or miscues. It’s not often that a rating goes up. But HELL DIVERS does, in my opinion. It gets better upon reflecting on the world. I mean, it doesn’t hurt that the scifi I’ve gone through since has been less-than-compelling. But still.
4.5 / 5 stars. Excellent. A must read for scifi fans and/or fans of post-apocalyptic thrillers, dystopian, or even steampunk. Or, if you haven’t explored Nicholas Sansbury Smith before—this is the time, and place, to start.